Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Counting Coup

With Feather at the Finish
Saturday was the big race...well, one of them.  I rode the Counting Coup, my first year as an official participant.  Last year I rode the course, unassisted, on race day.  This year I had a number plate, and I rode through the finishing gate  at 6:11.  I was aiming for six hours, and came close, close enough to be satisfied.

The Beginning at Blackstar
Race time is 5:30 a.m. which means getting up really early.  4:00 a.m. is not a time I like to see on my alarm clock.  This is supposed to be fun.   A few hundred of us line up in the pre-dawn darkness for a chance at suffering.  Actually, suffering is probably guaranteed, the success part is a bit more elusive.  There was a countdown, some drum beating, and a big feathery thing a couldn't see too well.  Then the race began.  The first few miles were quite surreal, riding through the dark canyon guided by narrow bike-light beams.    When the climbing began in earnest, the lights stretched out along the curving fire road.  Within 45 minutes the sun was up and I could see the landscape.  In an hour I was on Main Divide, watching the morning sun climb over the I-15 corridor.  It was a perfect day, views of the San Gabriels, the San Bernadino Mountains, and the big blue Pacific were all crystal clear.

After ten miles of mostly climbing (7 miles on Blackstar and 3 miles on Main Divide), the route reaches Pleasant's Peak.  The next four miles offer less daunting climbs and a few easy fire road descents.   This is the point where I found my crew, the people I would be riding near for the remainder of the race.  We passed each other, talked, joked, commiserated, and formed strategies for completion.  I passed (and was passed by) one rider in a Cadillac jersey.  We joked about his jersey (which he got for free after a test drive) and spoke about making the finish line in six hours.  We both had the same goal.

After 14 miles of dirt road, the course reaches the Silverado Motorway, an oddly named trail that switchbacks down to Silverado Canyon (and the start of Maple Springs Road).   The Motorway descent drops 3,000 feet in a little over three miles, and takes about 15 minutes to ride.  It's not a difficult descent, but it is rocky, and one of the keys to this race is making sure not to puncture or pinch a tire. ( I passed three riders fixing flats on this section alone).  The key is to go as fast as possible, and to stay on the main line.  At one point I had to pass a rider in a narrow gap and ended up rolling off-trail through a bunch of pointy skull-sized rocks.

I reached the bottom of the Motorway in 2 hours 35 minutes.  This is the site of the first aid  station, and I was greeted by a few friendly faces, including my friend Richard who gave me a big boost by riding the remainder of the course with me.    The key at the aid stations is to eat but not rest.  I filled up on water, got a few snacks and started walking.  Walking because I have a temperamental hamstring that needs to be stretched.  After a couple of minutes I was back on the bike.  This segment of the ride is essentially a 12-mile climb to Santiago peak.  There is not much to say about except that I made it.  This is also the portion of the ride - a second big climb - where training pays off.  Did I train?  No, not really.  I had only been on my bike twice in the previous four weeks. Not exactly dedication.  After my failed attempt to finish the Ultraquest (see earlier post), I had difficulty walking for a few days.  I was hamstrung by a sore hamstring and hip.  I decided to lay off the bike for a bit.  Then two weeks after the UQ,  I went out to do the Los Pinos trail (20 miles and 5,800 feet of climbing). I suffered a bit.  Part of the problem on Los Pinos was that I took the ride too lightly and didn't eat enough.  But I was also hampered by my hip and hamstring.  I wasn't sure what to do.  Ten days before the Counting Coup I decided I was out.  I was going to stay off the bike for at least a month.  Then I spent some days stretching and icing my leg, and began to have second thoughts about dropping out.  Five days before race day I decided to do a test run, enlisting Josh and Richard to ride the first leg of the race - Blackstar to Motorway. (Josh also rode the race on Saturday, coming in 34 minutes ahead of me).  I was a bit sore after the test ride, but not that sore.  I decided I was in.

After a seven-mile climb, Maple Springs Road intersects Main Divide and the Harding Truck Trail at Four Corners.  This is the site of the second aid station.  I reached this spot at about 4:12.  So, I was relatively slow up Maple Springs, but my overall pace seemed close to my 6 hour target time.  Richard checked the rider board, and it looked like Josh was about twenty minutes ahead of me.  I only had roughly four more miles to go till the peak, and then I was looking at an hour of mostly downhill.  Yay.  I was close.  I also felt good.  Good enough.  After a couple leg cramps on Maple Springs, I ate some Tums and that seemed to help.  I kept reminding myself to drink water.  More water.  Besides dehydration, eating enough is always a challenge.  I ate a few gels, which go down easy.  On the Ultraquest I bonked completely.  I reached a point where I had exactly zero energy, and had to lie down and nap on the San Juan Trail.  The Counting Coup is certainly not as difficult as the Ultraquest, but it is not to be taken lightly.  My strategy was to eat heartily the night before, and  eat more in the morning.  Then I would eat as much as my stomach would allow during the race, hence the gels.  Usually I lose my appetite after three or four hours of riding.  However, it's never a good idea to stop eating when you are burning a shit load of calories.  I'm 6'8" and roughly 210 lbs.  so I have a bit of bulk and a fairly fast metabolism.  I need to eat.

After two miles of climbing around Modjeska Peak, Main Divide runs level and slightly downhill to the top of the Joplin Trail.  I was getting close.  Less than two miles to the peak.  Then I got a flat. Shit.  I have Slime tubes, and the leak was moderately slow, so I thought I could risk refilling the same tube.  Unfortunately, my first two air canisters were duds.  Richard watched me flounder for a bit and then came to my rescue (simple tasks are difficult when you are tired.)  He had an air can, and he knew how to use it.  We kept going.  I struggled to the top and found Richard waiting for me.  5:12.  I probably wasn't going to make six hours, but there was no stopping at that point.  The first couple miles drop sharply on Main Divide to the Upper Holy Jim turnoff.  I sped down to the turnoff, and Richard was right behind me.  But Richard had tweaked his chain on the fire road.  I looked at it for about a minute, and I told him I had to keep going.  There were a couple race volunteers willing to help him, and I didn't think I would be any more helpful than they would be.  Plus, I had an outside chance at six hours.

Upper Holy Jim is the most technical part of the race course.  It's not overly steep, but it has tight switchbacks, the surface is also loose, off-camber and  boulder strewn in sections.  I typically ride the entire trail save two or three of the left switchback turns (my absolute weakness as a rider).   On race day it was difficult to get a clean run, as other riders were also struggling with switchbacks and rock problems.  I had to dismount a few times, passing riders on foot, and then drag a leg in a few sections where it was difficult to remount.

A short section of Main Divide leads to the lower section of Holy Jim.  The next four miles are  all single track - pretty fast and flowy - except for the first 300 yards which has a steep drop followed by a climb.  Again, someone dismounted in front of me before the climb.  Me and another rider passed him, but we were both too tired to remount for the climb.  Lack of momentum is a bitch.  So we both walked the short, moderately steep section.  Then it was all descending.  We headed down together, passing a few other riders, then I let the guy go ahead of me.  He was faster and gapped me a bit before he flatted.  I felt bad for him, but was happy my Slime tube was still holding (It held till about an hour after the race when it suddenly flatted).  As I passed,  I wished him luck.  He was doing the longer race - The Vision Quest.  I only came upon a few riders before the bottom of Holy Jim, but I passed a slew of hikers.   Perhaps 50 or 60.  The hikers were fairly gracious, stepping off the trail, but still presented obstacles - the trail is narrow.  I also wondered how it must have been for them, having to give way for a couple hundred mountain-bike racers.  But they all had to drive past, and hike past signs and an aid station, so, presumably they had a notion of what they were walking into.

The last section of Holy Jim crosses the creek several times.  Only a few of the crossings are ridable.  I tried my best not to lose time on the portages.  I splashed past more hikers.  Pushing.  I was close.  I reached Trabuco Road and the final aid station at 5:55.  This is the point where Vision Quest riders turn left and climb West Horsethief back to Main Divide before descending the entire Trabuco Trail (including my buddy Dan J.  who completed his first VQ in 8:45).  I was happy to turn right.  Just past the turn, I caught the "Cadillac" rider.   We had been changing places since mile ten.  He shouted to me - "let's go for six hours," and charged off.  I knew the time was unattainable, but charged after him.  We followed Trabuco Road for 4.5 miles, dodging cars, crossing the stream bed, and grinding out the last section.  He made it in 6:10:33, I made it in 6:11:03.  At the finish I saw a few more friendly faces.   People I didn't know cheered.  Someone handed me the traditional feather.  Someone else took my photo.  It wasn't the Vision Quest, and I didn't make six hours, but I did alright.  I had fun.  I got out in the Santa Ana's which is always a treat.  And I finished.

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